The United States of America circa 2021 may seem like a far cry from the lofty ideals sung about in the hit musical Hamilton.
The “young, scrappy and hungry” nation depicted in the stage show contrasts with the reality of a country battling division and violence.
“I see an explosion taking place [in America today],” Anthea Butler, associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, tells RN’s Soul Search.
“[We’ve had] a prevalence of police shootings of African-Americans and secondly, the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. The intersection of these two things makes for a potent stew of race and religion in America right now,” she says.
But amid this explosion, Americans like Associate Professor Butler maintain the words and ideas on which the country was founded are not only relevant, but instructive.
And she points to the musical Hamilton – which took Broadway by storm and recently opened in Sydney – as a way these words and ideas have become accessible in an entirely new way.
America’s ‘unfinished revolution’
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton tells the story of the American Revolution in the late 1700s, via its “forgotten founding father” Alexander Hamilton.
But the all-white figures of the revolution such as Hamilton, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are played by a racially diverse cast.
Characters sing about the founding of the American republic – and principles of freedom, liberty and equality – in hip-hop, R&B and soul.
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; We fought for these ideals, we shouldn’t settle for less,” Thomas Jefferson raps at one point.
Dr Butler says this racially diverse cast recalibrates the ideas of the founders.
“The way in which that cast was put together, having these things come out of people’s mouths that didn’t look like [Thomas] Jefferson or Aaron Burr, it makes an interesting juxtaposition,” she says.
“It calls us back to what the words really mean and what this is all about to begin with.
“[It reminds us] that we have people who have not realised all of the promises of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
She says African Americans “are continually asking that people in America and its leadership pay attention to the words that the founders made”.
Jonathan Den Hartog, professor of history at Samford University in Alabama, says the Hamilton musical is a call to action for modern audiences.
“Hamilton talks about an unfinished revolution. That [America] started on the road to fulfilling the ideas, but it hasn’t reached them yet,” he says.
Hamilton and religion
For Professor Den Hartog, Hamilton is also a springboard to think about the role of Christianity and religion in the USA, both at its founding and now.
While not as overt as other themes, religion is present in Hamilton, with George Washington quoting Scripture and Aaron Burr citing his “fire and brimstone preacher” grandfather Jonathan Edwards.
Professor Den Hartog says references like this point to a key event in the lead-up to the American Revolution — the “spiritual revolution” of the Great Awakening.
“The Great Awakening showed a real popular movement where people questioned established authority and that would then happen in a political sense in the revolution,” Professor Den Hartog says.
Associate Professor Butler agrees.
“There was a sense of growing unrest and upheaval that shows up in religions in this time period,” she says.
In the musical, Hamilton himself waxes and wanes with the exact role of his Christian faith – like the country did then and does now.
“Going into the American Revolution, there are competing religious visions and that carries through after the American republic is set up, through the 19th century, through the 20th century and today,” Professor Den Hartog says.
“The fact that we have competing religious visions shouldn’t come as a surprise to observers, it’s been there all along.”
Relevance to Australia
Six years after Hamilton hit Broadway, the musical opened in Sydney in March and is set to run until at least November.
Like the US production, the Australian cast is multicultural, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers as well as actors of Samoan, Maori, Filipino, Jamaican, South African, Nigerian, Egyptian and Japanese heritage.
Jason Arrow, who plays Hamilton in the Sydney production, says the musical is “about people, it’s about history … how Americans got where they are”.
“[But] that’s still relevant to us as well. As a country, we’re still finding our feet in a lot of different respects,” he tells 7:30.
The musical – which has perhaps become the most well-known retelling of the US Founding Fathers story – has triggered discussion about Australia’s Federation.
Professor Wayne Hudson, of Australian National University and Charles Sturt University, says although the US Constitution has worthy ideals, Australia has a far better relationship with its Constitution.
“In America, the Constitution … is the holy, founding, sacred document of the republic. So what happens in America, is the Constitution is sacralised and the country gets civil religion,” he says.
“[But] I think that sacralising the Constitution produces political disaster, as you see in the case of gun control in the US.
“Australia doesn’t suffer from the same worship of our Constitution. We change our Constitution, we’re critical of it in certain respects. That’s much harder to do in the US.
“[And] with civil religion in America, you get this funny sort of feeling that only people of a certain colour or people of a certain set of views are really meant [in it].”
That is an idea that Hamilton the musical is trying to change, one hip-hop lyric at a time.